It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.
—Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 233
I am thinking about you, Walter Long, demented Granddad, polite to a fault, always inquiring (after greeting us with extreme courtesy), Who are these nice people? When you last knew yourself, old grandfather, you had been a writer for 40 or 50 years. You had been a reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, in its day the largest circulating newspaper in Philadelphia. You had written a novel. Walter Long, in your wildest imaginings, in your worst terrors, did you dream it would come to this?
That your decades of writing would be entirely expunged? That your sentences, compositions, words, newspaper articles, recorded thoughts would be unobtainable even on scratchy microfilm, even in some carton forgotten in attic or archive? Though I am your granddaughter, Walter Long, I have never seen your handwriting, nor a typed page of your writing, nor a column of newsprint written by you, a reporter who ended up on the Metropolitan page with no byline. Major Long, I have spent days in newspaper archives looking for your name.
The few crumbs I learned about you when I was a girl growing up during the long night of your dementia had to do with your disappointments. The greatest disappointment of your life was that you did not get to report the sinking of the Lusitania. Or was it the Titanic? You did report the Lindbergh case. At least, someone thought so, because it is recorded in your 1966 obituary. But — this week, on the telephone, my father, your son, tells me that the greatest disappointment in your life was not getting to report the Lindbergh case.
Of your lucidity, I remember only how you took us kids out to the barn to see the gleaming black buggy that no longer had a horse to pull it. This was in 1948, the year you retired to a gentleman’s farm in Bucks County. Not long after that, your mind was gone. You no longer knew your own son, much less the child I was, the writer I would become.
A Philadelphia reporter, you must have known the brick and cobble of old Philadelphia as well as you knew the contours of your own tall thin body. I remember cobblestone streets and stone houses, shutters, slate, the cracked liberty bell. I remember a stone statue of that other writer, Ben Franklin. We would drive to see you – not you, truly, in your dementia — but your wife Nan, my Scottish grandmother. We would drive north from Maryland and stop in Philadelphia. We would linger for hours in Leary’s Bookstore, its three floors stuffed and sagging with used books. Or wander the Philadelphia Art Museum, its majestic Beaux Arts grandeur on a hilltop overlooking the Schuylkill River.
You inherited Philadelphia from your own grandfather. He too was a writer. Colonel Stephen Winslow edited the Philadelphia Commercial List and was known as “the grand old man in the newspaper life of Philadelphia.” Walter Long, you were 23 when Stephen Winslow died. I imagine him mentoring you, introducing you about town, arranging for you your first job. Colonel Winslow worked and socialized right up to the end. Upon his death in 1907, one of several glowing obituaries declared, “He was the oldest reporter in the city, and it may be that he was the best liked.” As for you, you went senile 16 years before your own body gave out. You died unknown even to yourself, and went to your grave forgotten.
Upon your death, they discarded your novel. “He wrote a novel,” my father told me many years later. “It wasn’t very good, and we didn’t keep it.”
Last year my aunt, your daughter, sent me every extant relic pertaining to you or to my grandmother, practically nothing. But the little package included an undated clipping from the Philadelphia Bulletin, which features you. The photograph shows a balding, thin-faced, bespectacled man smiling brightly. This clipping doubles what I know about you:
Walter Long.The Zoning Board of Adjustment goes into sesssion.hearing pro and con on whether a new apartment site shall be approved.News is being made.and Walter Long’s there.accurately recording the builder’s arguments, the opponents’ vigorous stand.For 15 years Walter Long has been one of the Bulletin’s experts in municipal affairs.He roams the City Hall annex.drops in daily on the Board of Health.keeps tabs on the Department of Supplies and Purchases.and distinguishes himself with his detailed reporting of the City Housing Rent Commission Hearings.
Not the Titanic. Not the Lindbergh case. But there you are.
I have a photograph of you looking up from your writing desk with its inclined surface. In your right hand you hold a dip pen. Perhaps the pen has a metal nib shaped like the Eiffel Tower or like a pointing finger, like the antique dip pens advertised in the Levenger’s Catalog of Tools for Serious Writers. I imagine on your desk a fine leather-cornered blotter, an inkpot, fine paper, perhaps a cream colored sheet with a linen finish. Perhaps in the lamplight you are working on your novel, writing scene after scene. It makes you happy to think of people reading the very words you are writing. Your handwriting is round, neat, and straight, as befits a scholar raised in the Age of Penmanship.
You smile to yourself and sip the cup of English tea that Nan your wife has brought to hand. You write easily into the night, a war story perhaps, full of romance. Perhaps you are thinking of your own war, the Great War, the Battle of Champagne. There, during the week of October 2-10, 1918, you “remained at exposed post and by.constant presence kept up the distribution of ammunition in a well regulated manner.” For this you received the French Croix de Guerre with a bronze star.
Perhaps the heroine of your novel resembles your first wife, a girl who died at 22 of tuberculosis.
“Whoever she was, she was of no significance,” my 85-year-old aunt, your daughter, tells me. This first wife of yours, Walter Long, nobody remembers her name.
I see you there, old grandfather, writing in the lamplight with your gold-nibbed dip pen. The inkpot, the nib, the draw of the black ink, pleases you tonight. It is late summer, and the moon is out. Your wife has long since gone to bed. Tonight your characters – let’s call them Oliver Winslow and Hannah Olson – begin to fall in love. One of them has tuberculosis, but they don’t know that yet, and they are completely happy.